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Why Emotional Intelligence Is A Fundamental Leadership Skill

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Introduction

October has been Emotional Intelligence Awareness Month.

From my perspective, this is a brilliant initiative. I firmly believe that emotional intelligence remains the most under-rated asset in business today and that having high levels of emotional intelligence makes the difference between an average or good leader and a great or outstanding leader.

Before I trained as an Emotional Intelligence assessor, I had a very narrow view of EI and I think many people still hold that view.

I saw Emotional Intelligence as the ability to read other peoples’ emotions and respond accordingly.  I, therefore, saw it as a great way of improving communication and relationships – but that was it.

Whilst that is a key benefit of Emotional Intelligence, the fact is that its benefits are far more wide-ranging.

Emotional Self-Regulation

The other key aspect of Emotional Intelligence is around noticing and managing ones’ own emotions.  What I call state management.

This is an area I work on with most of my Coachees who are leaders or prospective leaders.

As we all know, as leaders, we are the barometer of the business. Our people look to us to gauge how the business is doing.  If we look as if we are feeling the pressure, if we’re unhealthily stressed, anxious or edgy our people get worried:

“What’s going on?  Is the department at risk?  Am I about to lose my job?”   

They get distracted, the water cooler gossip commences, they lose focus – engagement, productivity and performance go down.

It’s a vicious spiral as everyone goes into survival mode.

What Neuroscience Tells Us

It’s only in relatively recent years that we have been able to establish what goes on in the brain when we get stressed or go into survival mode.

Our neural pathways get flooded by the stress hormone cortisol and we hence lose access to our pre-frontal cortex, also known as the Executive brain. The Executive brain is the newest part of our brain after the Reptilian brain and the Mammalian Brain.  It’s the home of our higher human powers – it’s literally what differentiates us from reptiles and other mammals!

It’s the home of meta-cognition – our unique human ability to think about our thinking. It’s the home of analysis, rationality and logic.  The home of lateral thinking, ideation and creativity.   Even the home of empathy.

Without access to this part of the brain, we lose what it is that makes us human.  We revert to our baser, survival instincts – the instinctive fight, flight and freeze responses.

It’s why in moments of high stress and tension we can do and say things we later regret – breaching trust, losing the respect of others and damaging relationships.

Unless, of course, we are adept at managing our own state, down-regulating our emotions and maintaining access to our Executive functions. One of the hallmarks of high Emotional Intelligence.

Why EI Is Such a Fundamental Leadership Skill

Thus the impact of low Emotional Intelligence when it comes to leadership is huge.

Think about some key requirements of your role and what would happen if you fail to manage your emotional state, flip into survival mode and lose access to your Executive brain:

Relationship management

  • You could show your immense frustration or lose your temper (fight)
  • Walk away and refuse to communicate or leave the room and slam the door (flight)
  • Fail to find the words you wish to say and undermine your own position (freeze)

Decision-making

  • You could make a rash and possibly regrettable decision (fight)
  • Keep procrastinating and avoid making any decision (flight)
  • Find yourself incapable of evaluating the situation and coming to a decision (freeze)

Problem-solving

  • You might frame it as a problem ie. negatively and blame others for the situation (fight)
  • See it as someone else’s problem and not take responsibility for it (flight)
  • Lie awake at night ruminating and not be able to sleep (freeze)

Recognise any of these behaviours in yourself or others? 

Summary

Thus Emotional Intelligence – the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions as well as the emotions of others – is a fundamental leadership skill.

Emotions are our Energy in Motion – they are what drive us. Survival emotions such as fear, anger and shame are fantastic warning signals that all is not good with the world, but they sap our energy, divert our attention and stifle our drive.

As leaders, we need to manage our own emotional state which will in turn influence the emotions of others – acting as the proverbial radiator rather than drain.  Leaders with high EI who act as great role models and value and develop Emotional Intelligence in their teams are the outstanding leaders of the future because quite simply – high Emotional Intelligence equals high performance.

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